news, 50th Anniversary, alumni

Education alumni among SFU's 50 Most Inspiring Graduate Alumni

October 16, 2015

In honour of Simon Fraser University's 50th Anniversary, the Dean of Graduate Studies Office asked graduate program staff, faculty and retirees to choose the top 50 most inspiring graduate students from the over 22,000 graduate degrees that have been conferred by SFU in the last five decades. Among the 50 alumni honoured were two Education alumni: Dr. Egan Chernoff and Dr. Ethel Gardner.

Dr. Egan Chernoff, PhD '09 (Mathematics Education)

On a cold day in April of 2014, a group of nearly 200 Albertans rallied outside the Provincial Legislature protesting the province’s new math curriculum.  The demonstration was just one of many skirmishes in what has been dubbed 'the Canadian math wars'. Dr. Egan Chernoff is working to bring about a cease-fire.

Chernoff, known online as MatthewMaddux, is an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Saskatchewan and editor of the Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education. He completed a PhD in Education at SFU in 2009. 

“People think of math as this scary thing and that has led to this polarized public opinion on what is the most effective approach for teaching math—discovery learning or fundamentals. The problem is that both approaches have merit, but when the debate is positioned as one or the other everybody suffers,” he says.

Chernoff is helping to create a more balanced and open climate for the teaching and learning of math by starting with the people that are the first touch point for many students: teachers.

“I was leading a teacher training session and asked all the incoming teachers if any of them couldn’t read. No one raised their hand. Then I asked if any of them couldn’t do math. Almost everyone one raised their hand. I want to help teachers stop hating or being afraid of math and instead start enjoying and using it,” he says.

Chernoff also supports the math teaching and learning community at a broader scale by helping connect teachers with new (and old) tools. In addition to regular tweets on cutting edge math resources, Egan runs a blog that he describes as “a digital repository of . . . mathematics education signals.”

No stranger to traditional publishing channels, Egan also recently released a series of three books featuring selected archival material from the Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan Associations of Math Teachers. He explains that his goal with the project was to help share what he described as a ‘treasure trove’ of lessons and teaching approaches from the last 50 years with today’s math teachers. 

Chernoff's impressive track record, he explains, is the direct result of Dr. Rina Zazkis and his SFU graduate training, “The environment at SFU was inspiring, the faculty there were publishing research at a tremendous rate as well as receiving accolades for their teaching. It really set a high standard,” he says.

In addition, Chernoff notes the exceptional collegiality nurtured by the program—something he strives to replicate now as a faculty member himself.

“At SFU I was always treated as a peer. I am proud to able to reciprocate and create that now for others—supporting student to develop their own scholarly practice, that is the gem hidden in all the papers and conference presentations,” he says.

Author: Jackie Amsden

Dr. Ethel Gardner, PhD '02

In 1975, Dr. Ethel Gardner, a Stó:lō member of the Skwah First Nation, decided she wanted to learn how to speak her people’s traditional language. Searching Vancouver bookstores for a resource on the Halq'eméylem language, Gardner was shocked by what she found: absolutely nothing.

Gardner is an Elder in Residence at Simon Fraser University, and the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology. Now (mostly) retired, she has held professorships at multiple universities including SFU, Lakehead University and the University of Alberta. She continues to work as a sessional faculty member at the University of the Fraser Valley. She completed a Special Arrangements PhD at SFU in 2002 and an Ed.M. from Harvard University in 1993.  

“I was born in Hope, BC, but then we moved to Quebec. We would get taunted by neighborhood kids. They would say you’re Indians and my dad would say 'no you're not, you're half-breeds.' But sometimes at home he would speak Halq'eméylem and he would look so proud when he did. At home we were real Indians but outside we were not. I grew up very confused,” says Gardner.

Returning to BC as an adult, Gardner began focusing her efforts on revitalizing her traditional language so others in her community wouldn't have to experience the same confusion she did. “I wanted to know why there were no resources on our language. I went to university and learned about the history of First Nations in Canada and about residential schools. That made me angry. I wanted to redress what had been done,” she says.

Gardner’s SFU PhD dissertation examined the syntax, history and cultural significance of the Halq'eméylem language. The experience she said not only cemented her passion for the field, but was personally transformative. “Through my PhD, I was able to establish how language tied us together with our identity, land, spirituality. It was an epiphany. I came to understand what it means to be Stó:lō,” she says.

As a faculty member at SFU, and later, Lakehead University, Gardner led the design and development of Indigenous teacher education programs across Canada.  As well, she was the director of the Indigenous Languages Education initiative with the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education. 

Gardner explains that what she is most proud of are the many Indigenous language teachers she has helped train over the years. “Now they are out there helping grow the language in communities, band schools, adult classrooms, Head Start programs—everywhere—Indigenous peoples across Canada can stay connected with their culture and what it means to be a First Nations person in their context,” she says. 

Gardner credits SFU as helping get her started on what has been a career that has touched so many lives. "I was thrilled with what I was able to do at SFU. I was able to determine how I wanted to do things at every step," she says. 

Author: Jackie Amsden